Universities must find a way to challenge populism

Higher education needs a new focus based on democratic and global citizenship, according to Fernando Reimers, professor of international education at Harvard University, who eruditely and passionately defended the values of freedom and equality against the rise of populism, in a keynote speech at the co-hosted WISE – World Innovation Summit for Education – and Santander forum in Madrid, Spain, on Tuesday.

The forum, with the theme “'Imagining the Future of Education”, sought to address how education systems can transform themselves to anticipate the future, what tools and innovations will be the real change-makers, and the role that higher education should play in shaping the future.

"We are faced with a challenge to liberalism by populists who are challenging the ideas of freedom, equality, human rights, representative democracy and globalisation... and most fascism starts with populism," Reimers reminded the 800 delegates gathered from all over the world.

Reimers linked the period of the Dark Ages, "when facts did not matter", with our current post-truth age in which expertise on matters of climate change, for example, is rubbished and institutions are deemed untrustworthy.

He said that, among other benefits, the Enlightenment brought democracy, critical thinking and modern research universities and that we need to take challenges to this progress very seriously. Universities need to adapt and change but "we mustn't throw the baby out with the bath water", he argued.

Reimers then put forward a new focus for higher education based on the principles of democratic and global citizenship.

Kicking off with the importance of human rights, he contended that recent discrimination on the basis of religious faith in the United States has been met with near silence from lecturers and higher education institutions. "There have been protests, but we have 4,500 universities and 1,200,000 professors and most have not said a word," he said.

Students need to be educated about shared global challenges, he argued. Universities could do this by using the United Nations list of Sustainable Development Goals, for example, in order to "empower global citizens who will step up and take responsibility to improve the world we live in".

Reimers argued that it is the business of universities to teach values, such as the framework provided by the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as ethics.

He praised the bravery of the Harvard president, for example, who had offered a US$100,000 prize to student teams to develop innovative strategies to tackle poverty, education and public health problems. 350 teams had competed for the prize, often working across disciplines, which had produced a highly effective learning environment.

Other initiatives included putting wheels on chairs, 'flattening' the inclines in lecture theatres and painting the rooms bright colours, which had created a dynamic and exciting atmosphere. Faculty were actively encouraged to share any innovative teaching ideas. "The changes were amazing and made me feel excited each day," Reimers said.

In conclusion, Reimers argued that freedom and equality are important values and that the alternatives are a descent into fascism and communism. "It is the universities’ role to promote liberalism," he said.

Relevance of HE in a changing world

In the other leading keynote speech of the afternoon, Dr Eduardo Padrón, president of Miami Dade College – the largest higher education institution in the US – argued that "universities for the most part have not acknowledged that the world has changed". He said most universities are expensive, elitist and passive in their teaching methods and that "the description of them as ivory towers is still one that very much applies".

Padrón explained that most Americans now change jobs eight or 10 times during their working lives and so the need for lifelong learning and adaptability is critical. "At my institution the average age of students is 26 and for the baccalaureate it is 32, because of the people returning to university to update their skills."

"In the US two-thirds of jobs require some sort of credential and that is why I have advocated for years that higher education should become a universal human right," he said.

"Universities have to become 'incubators of inclusion', embrace diversity and be agents of equalisation. Higher education institutions should become catalysts for economic growth and equality – or they will become irrelevant," he said.

Padrón argued that while employers are seeking students who are innovative, critical thinkers, cross-culturally aware, and who can adapt and collaborate, universities are not providing these individuals. "Universities are responding too slowly," he said. "There is a lot of work to do and not much time to do it."

'Gamification' of recruitment

Dr Amber Wigmore Álvarez, executive director of Career Services at IE, outlined some of the innovations that are taking place at Instituto de la Empresa SA, which is based in Madrid.

Álvarez explained that many companies seeking to recruit new employees are now directing students to download their free apps to their smartphones and asking them to play games on them. Companies then make their pre-assessment of candidates based on specific psychometric measurements built into the games.

"They collect 30,000 data points in a 30-minute session. The aim is to keep the candidates engaged while they do a personality profile on how the candidates have performed," she said.

"Our traditional recruiters do not want to sift through hundreds of job applications. We have discovered that this technology is an enormous improvement over traditional processes. For example, 50% of applicants used to be interviewed [at a particular company] and now the figure is 5%, because they have already been assessed."

"We have found that these applications are also promoting inclusion because they eliminate the unconscious bias of interviewers," she said.

"For these reasons I believe that over 60% of universities and international companies will be using these tools as a first round filter in the next five years."

Separately, Álvarez pointed out that students do not always know what they are passionate about, and so IE university provides them with many internship opportunities to help them clarify their expectations. "We need more committed investment in global diversity programmes and internships," she argued.

Dr Amal Mohammed Al Malki, founding dean of the college of humanities and social sciences at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar, agreed. "We need an education system that teaches and promotes gender rights, human rights and ethics with a diverse multicultural approach," she said. "Really we need to think ahead and prepare our students for jobs that don't yet exist."